The Yin and Yang of Innovation

The Yin and Yang of Innovation
"LoveBug"​ Sculpture in Rio de Janeiro depicting the Yin and Yang symbol. Artist unknown

More than a decade ago, when I needed a pithy modus operandi statement for this new fangled LinkedIn thing, I came up with this:

Successful innovation comes from adeptly alternating between the thousand foot view to ensure the intent is being met, and the microscopic view to ensure the technical challenges can be overcome.

Although it lacks poetic sensibility, and is a little specific to my frame of mind at the time, the general premise has proven to be quite hardy throughout my innovation maturation. There’s something enduring about considering a spectrum of perspectives. About seeing the grey amongst the black and white, and about welcoming the yin and the yang.

What prompted this reflection was another fascinating episode of All In The Mind, this one exploring the neuroscience behind creativity. In it, guest Associate Professor Roger Beaty from Penn State University talks about the three key brain regions involved in the creative process: the default, salience and executive networks. The default network derives its name from the fact that it is active when we have no particular stimulus or task to undertake. By default, our brains are free to wander and make unfocused leaps of cognition. On the other hand, when a particular activity is required of us the executive network is in control, ensuring we apply proper and appropriate cognitive resources that draw on our knowledge about how the world works. In between there is the salience network which acts like a mediator between the two, making sense of idle thoughts and allowing the executive function to apply rationalisation to the default networks flights of fancy. Interestingly, it does not seem to be possible to have more than one of these networks active at the same time - we can only switch between them over time.

What Professor Beaty's research seems to suggest is that people with stronger connections between these three networks tend to score higher on measures of creativity. The hypothesis is that in order to be creative, we need to combine the divergent thoughts that come from unencumbered imagination, with the idea evaluation and convergent thought that comes from focused concentration.

Of course, science interpretations that agree with your world view are always easiest to favour. Nonetheless, there is something perennial about the correlation between practices that produce novel, creative and innovative outcomes, and an appreciation of useful tension between blue sky thought and fine detail focus.

Indeed, Amantha Imber recently reported on a seminal research article by Dijksterhuis and Nordgren that found unconscious decision making is consistently superior compared to conscious decision making, for complex decisions. And when it comes to ideas for innovation, 100% of the time you’re going to have to make a complex decision!

General thought even trumps expertise. As reported in Harvard Business Review, author and University of Pennsylvania academic Professor Phillip Tetlock conducted a 20+ year study of 284 professional forecasters. He found that experts are less accurate predictors than non-experts in their area of expertise. Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate vague or poorly-defined situations.

What is certain, is that I’ve found rewarding success in innovative endeavours by encouraging time to dream big, and time to hone to a point. That we should always explore "what do we want?" as well as ask "what can we do?", and not let one speak for the other. That we should explore solutions without constraining them by problems, but then ensure we understand the problems for our solutions. In all things, a balance - time to work and time to play.

After all, as Oscar Wilde suggested,

"Everything should be enjoyed with moderation, including moderation itself"

Further Reading

Once you reach a certain level of expertise, entertaining thoughts and ways of thinking outside your area of expertise become essential to continue to make meaningful contributions. These two short articles have been particularly influential in clarifying this realisation for me.

  • “Falling on the ground and flailing your legs doesn’t look much like walking, but it’s a good way to learn to oscillate, and oscillation is the most effective motion for walking. If you lock your objectives strictly on walking, you won’t hit that oscillation stepping stone. Stanley calls this the “objective paradox” — as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.”
  • NON IMPEDITI RATIONE COGITATIONIS (unencumbered by the thought process) "I’ve shamelessly adopted this as one of my mantras, to the point of having it emblazoned over the door to my office (to challenge myself as well as my clients). Why? One of MY deeply held credos is as follows: 'We should think less and act more.' My most recent book review on Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind notes how 'thinking less can make you more intelligent.' We often spend so much time thinking through options and potential outcomes that action never ensues. This impacts opportunities for all, since failure to act on something virtually guarantees failure to achieve much of anything."